With Nanjing’s sycamore trees shedding their pollen, it would be fair to also say that when expats in Nanjing are asked as to their very first impression of the city, the bulk would say there are so many sycamore trees.
Nanjing locals have grown up with the sycamore, scenery that cannot be more common on their way home. While sycamores, also known as Plane trees, from the genus Platanus, can be found all over the city, they are most prevalent in the downtown area, lining Zhongshan Lu, Mochou Lu, Changjiang Lu and Hanzhong Lu. Perhaps taking their presence for granted a little too much, Nanjingers only notice the existence of sycamore trees when they are annoyed by their pollen shedding each spring.
Yet, this does not mean local people do not like sycamore trees; on the contrary, one can only complain about something or someone one is really close to. It is the same case with Nanjing’s darling sycamores; pedestrians in Nanjing are forever under their protection, enjoying a breeze under the shadow of its rich branches and leaves during summer’s hot sunshine, or hiding themselves from winter’s unpredictable rain.
Despite their fame, there still exists confusion as to the true origins of such a large amount of sycamore trees in Nanjing. The most romantic tale goes that Song Meiling was particularly fond of the French sycamore, and so Chiang Kai-shek, in order to satisfy his wife, purposely introduced 20,000 sycamores from France, planting them all the way from the Meiling Palace to Zhongshan Bei Lu.
Another story tells us that the sycamore tree originated in 1872 in Nanjing, when Lang Huairen, a missionary from the French Concession in Shanghai, brought the tree by boat to Nanjing and planted it by himself. At first, it was planted in Shigu Lu Primary School, the earliest modern-style primary school in Nanjing, after which it was transplanted all over the city.
In 1917, Sun Yat-sen published the General Plan for the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, praising Nanjing as, “A beautiful area, where there are mountains, deepwater and plains. These three kinds of unbelievable nature can be hardly found in the world’s metropolises”. He was keen to build the perfect capital, Nanjing. In preparation for the arrival of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s remains from Beijing in 1929, some 20,000 sycamore trees were planted along the main roads around Zhongshan Lu.
Later, after 1949’s liberation, Liu Bocheng, the first Mayor of Nanjing, who was fond of the tall, upright and lush trees, set off a “planting boom” in 1953, seeding approximately 100,000 trees.
Somewhat unbelievably, the sycamore trees that exist in Nanjing today account for only 2 percent of those planted during the Republic of China.
No matter their origin, the sycamore will always be remembered as perhaps the most iconic symbol of Nanjing, beloved by people who call the city home.